In their “Symphonic Stories” themed program Saturday evening at Strathmore, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Jun Märkl presented a polished performance of works mostly inspired by fiction or lore. Jonathan Biss served as soloist for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, a selection that helped ground the more fantastical nature of the other pieces.
The concert opened with Camille Saint-Saёns’ “Danse macabre,” the most enduring of his tone poems written in the 1870s. The short and light-natured work draws inspiration from the midnight Witches’ Sabbath that was popular among several other 19th-century Romantic composers, most notably Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” and Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Maestro Märkl’s treatment was deliberate and direct but maintained a sense of elegance – even through the most whimsically grotesque moments. The frequent dynamic undulations were handled with subtlety and emphasized controlled vacillations above overt thrills. Perhaps a few moments could have been embraced with more direct gusto, but this was a thoughtful reading of a work that could easily have been too casual.
This was such an enjoyable performance and seemed to be an excellent combination of orchestra, soloist and guest conductor.
Jonathan Biss has his hands involved with many aspects of the music field beyond his success as a concert soloist, which is notable given how many of the world’s major orchestras he has appeared with. As a faculty member at the Curtis Institute of Music his massive open online course (MOOC), “Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas,” has reached more than 150,000 people around the world. Though he is also involved in a nine-year project recording all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, his advocacy for new music has him busy premiering new works, primarily with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Biss’ performance with the BSO of the twenty-first Mozart concerto demonstrated his prowess of classical-era piano works. His touch is both delicate and articulate, with an exceptional sense of overarching line. This was most apparent in the ethereal middle movement, where the tender and dreamlike theme had a singing quality. Here also, the BSO and Märkl were at their best in supporting the soloist. The pizzicatos from the strings were delicate, yet rich with tone. In other movements, though modestly reduced in size, the volume from the string sections seemed to overpower the chamber-like qualities of the work and competed too much with Biss’ sensitive approach. This was minor, though, and detracted minimally from the nuanced interaction amongst orchestra, conductor, and soloist.
After an intermission, full orchestra (and then some) returned for a crackling performance of “Don Quixote,” Richard Strauss’ famous tone poem. The nearly forty-minute work programmatically follows the title character, played by solo cello, through his knightly-adventures along with sidekick Sancho Panza (solo viola) and his quest to find his ideal lady, Dulcinea (solo oboe). Throughout the vibrant variations, the subtext of Quixote’s age is interwoven with the exciting depictions and the work eventually concludes passively with the main character lying on his deathbed.
As with the Saint-Saёns, Märkl and the BSO again proved adept at handling the extreme variety of tempi, style, and color changes in the demanding work. From the outset, flutes, with their opening flourish, established an articulate and crisp virtuosity that was eventually demanded of all members of the orchestra. The bombastic moments provided delicious morsels of ear-candy, but most impressive was the measured breadth of the rewarding climaxes, both loud and soft. This was such an enjoyable performance and seemed to be an excellent combination of orchestra, soloist and guest conductor.
Running Time: One hour and fifty minutes including an intermission.
For more performances and information about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, click here. For more information on performances at Strathmore, click here. For Mr. Biss’ website, click here.